Exhibition Review: Paris: Impressions of Life 1880-1925, Bendigo Art Gallery

Enchanting and escapist showcase that nonetheless shies away from depicting the less glamorous side of Parisian life.
Installation view of a gallery showing mannequins in period Parisian dresses, there are also pictures on the wall. Paris: Impressions of Life.

Bendigo Art Gallery’s Paris: Impressions of Life (1880-1925) offers an enchanting glimpse into the famous city during the Belle Époque (1871-1914) – a period characterised by cultural splendour and societal transformation. With a selection from the renowned collection of the Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris, including 170 artworks and a number of cultural artefacts, this exhibition transports visitors to the birthplace of Impressionism and Modern art, marking the evolution of a city from medieval to modern. 

Structured into seven themed pathways, the exhibition recreates the ambience of Parisian streets and passages, from the lively Montmartre to the bustling Seine, with accompanying paintings depicting scenes from each area. While some galleries evoke a more immersive atmosphere than others, each contributes to the overall narrative of the splendour of late 19th century Paris.

Object highlights include the charming gilded metal snails from the escargot retailer (reminiscent of a bygone era’s street vendors), exquisite dresses worn by affluent theatre patrons and souvenirs from the universal exhibitions.

The primary focus on the opulent lifestyles of the upper class, however, overlooks the socioeconomic disparities and political unrest prevalent at the time. While it provides a delightful escapade into the city’s glamour, it falls short in presenting a more complex portrayal of life for the majority of Parisian citizens.  

The exhibition’s integration with the surrounding “Bonjour Bendigo” precinct and wider region – including a fashion collection at Blue Ilusion and French-themed culinary offerings – adds a unique dimension to the visitor experience. This synergy between art, history, gastronomy and shopping makes a day trip to Bendigo a worthwhile excursion for enthusiasts of fashion and culture.

Read: Exhibition review: Tales of Land and Sea, Bundanon

As you lose yourself in the exhibition’s enchanting tapestry, be prepared for a temporary, if somewhat shallow, escape from the mundane. 

Paris: Impressions of Life 1880-1925 will be on display until 14 July 2024 at Bendigo Art Gallery; ticketed.

Mia-Francesca Jones is a writer and researcher living on Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Her work has been shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize, The Rachel Funari Prize, the Overland VU Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Richell Prize by Hachette Australia. She has worked in various arts roles for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Castlemaine Art Museum, and is a former co-editor of the Australian Audio Guide. She is currently completing a PhD in literary ecocriticism.